Try digitalPLUS for 10 days for only $0.99

Op-Eds

News Opinion Op-Eds

Justice eludes tenants

On most days in landlord-tenant court in Baltimore City District Court, the only issue is: "Did you pay your rent?" If not, you are on the street. No defense is allowed, such as "I was sick and lost time from work," "My benefit check did not arrive," or even, "We have no hot water and there is mold growing in the apartment because of the leaky roof." The tenant must be able to pay the full amount to even raise a legal claim that the housing is posing a health danger. If rent due has not been paid, and the tenant cannot pay the full amount, the tenant is summarily evicted. This story is repeated hundreds of times each month in Baltimore.

Why are so many unable to pay their rent? Because even sub-standard housing has become unaffordable to people living on a low income. The cheapest rents for even a run-down one bedroom in Baltimore are around $700 per month. Many low-wage earners work full-time, minimum wage jobs with take-home pay of a little over $1,000 a month.

The consequences of evictions are severe for the tenants, but also for the health of our city. Challenges to landlords' failure to maintain their properties are seldom heard. Evictions exacerbate urban poverty. In Baltimore and many large cities, they tend to disproportionately affect low-income, African-American women with children, as described by Matthew Desmond in his article "Eviction and the Reproduction of Urban Poverty." Having an eviction on your record makes it much harder to secure affordable housing in a safer neighborhood. Repeated moves wreak havoc on young children's ability to do well in school.

A recent article Baltimore Sun article described a new initiative by medical providers to do outreach to low-income people in West Baltimore in an attempt to address social determinants of health that result in poor health outcomes. But these efforts will not be as effective as they might be until we do something serious about the lack of affordable, habitable housing.

Many Baltimore residents live in substandard conditions that threaten their health. In the Landlord-Tenant Clinic that I direct, we have worked with many clients in such conditions. One recent client was living in a newly rented basement apartment that flooded three times during her 16 months there. Mold growth made her breathing difficulties worse. In another case, until we got involved the landlord refused to address rodent problems or make repairs. The client's refrigerator broke, and despite promises the landlord never fixed or replaced it. Our client ended up in the hospital because his insulin, which was to be refrigerated, became ineffective and he went into shock. In a third case, our client moved into a rowhouse with abandoned houses on either side of it. The roof leaked and the doors and windows were not secure, leading to break-ins. Rat tunnels entered her dwelling from both sides.

Unfortunately, these are not unusual examples.

Landlords are able to rent these places because of a desperate lack of decent, affordable housing. Because virtually no tenants have legal representation, landlords have been getting away with this for decades, despite laws regarding the warranty of habitability intended to protect tenants. In fact, in Baltimore City District Court, some judges refuse to allow tenants to file a rent escrow claim as a defense to the landlord's request to evict them for nonpayment of rent. Instead, tenants must file a petition initiating an action against the landlord. Tenants must pay a filing fee or seek a waiver of the fee based on indigency. Then, if the tenant wants the two cases to be heard together, he or she must file a "motion to consolidate" the two cases. Not surprisingly, such petitions are filed only by a very small number of tenants who are persistent and sufficiently confident to navigate these requirements.

In the meantime, despite the city's efforts, the housing stock and poor neighborhoods all over Baltimore continue to deteriorate.

So what is the answer? One step in the right direction would be to remove court-created obstacles to tenants using statutory authority to enforce the warranty of habitability. If tenants were encouraged to file rent escrow petitions/defenses in appropriate cases, landlords would have more incentive to properly maintain their properties. The tenant's rent would be paid into court until the landlord has proved to the court's satisfaction that appropriate repairs have been made.

In addition, the courts have the authority to abate the amount of rent the tenant should pay if the defects in the property pose a serious health risk. They should use this power, which would also result in fewer evictions each month.

These steps would benefit not only current tenants but future residents — as well as all of Baltimore.

Deborah Weimer is a professor at the University of Maryland's Francis King Carey School of Law. Her email is weimer@law.umaryland.edu.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • Remember Baltimore's displaced poor

    The recent commentary regarding landlord-tenant court hit home to me the other day ("Justice eludes poor tenants in Baltimore," June 13). I had been witnessing for days the meteoritic building of a housing development on a entire block in East Baltimore at Wolfe and Fayette streets that is advertised...

  • We must redouble our efforts now that the Freddie Gray cameras are gone

    We must redouble our efforts now that the Freddie Gray cameras are gone

    When Baltimore burned during the recent uprising, there were news cameras everywhere to document the mayhem and rage. As pastor of the only church whose property was torched during the chaos — housing we were building to redress systemic inequities and to revitalize blighted communities was destroyed...

  • Men, their sons and their lawns

    Men, their sons and their lawns

    Along with eye color and a knack for rolling your tongue, an obsession with the grass around your house is hereditary, I have learned. It is also, apparently, a sex-linked gene, because no little girl has ever been born wanting to mow the lawn.

  • Gag order request in Freddie Gray case shows prosecutor's misunderstanding

    Gag order request in Freddie Gray case shows prosecutor's misunderstanding

    The searing spotlight of media scrutiny fell upon a Maryland state's attorney, a rising star in Democratic politics. After a high-profile beating death, the young prosecutor convened a news conference to announce murder charges, detail the evidence and insist that the public's desire for justice...

  • Jeb Bush has bigger problems than Iraq war stumble

    Jeb Bush has bigger problems than Iraq war stumble

    By now everyone has had their say about Jeb Bush's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week. The consensus is that Mr. Bush misheard Megyn Kelly's "knowing what we know now" question about the Iraq war. I'm not convinced.

  • Gov. Hogan's funding games have consequences

    Gov. Hogan's funding games have consequences

    In the last few weeks we've heard much about the neglected and underdeveloped parts of Baltimore and how decades of degradation and neglect played a role in the recent social upheaval and civil unrest. Almost universally we've heard activists, experts and thought leaders tout education as a surefire...

  • Don't give up on Baltimore, Preakness

    Don't give up on Baltimore, Preakness

    There's been talk about moving the Preakness Stakes from Pimlico, which is in my district and has been home to the second leg of The Triple Crown for 140 years, to Laurel. I get it. Pimlico needs work to bring its facility up to par with Laurel Raceway. Laurel is closer to Washington and would...

  • The failed war on drugs continues to amass casualties in Baltimore and beyond

    The failed war on drugs continues to amass casualties in Baltimore and beyond

    As rightly concerned and upset as we are about Freddie Gray's death in police custody, we ought to be just as concerned about the body count that existed prior to his death and has been on the rise ever since (there have been roughtly three dozen homicides in Baltimore since Gray died, not counting...

Comments
Loading

46°